50,000,000 Kerry Fans Can't Be Wrong Can They?

And other questions from the campaign trail

Can such a dowdy, narcissistic Brahmin keep on burning for the people through November, or will he turn to ash at some point and rise again as Al Gore the Second? In a normal year the answer would be obvious: For a generation now, the Democratic Party has played me-too politics and unswervingly followed Republican leads. But 2004 is not a normal year. The party has caught the scent of Bush's weaknesses--that is, they have finally learned that a good deal of the public sees those weaknesses and despises Bush personally on top of them. Establishment elites in both parties have been heard to fret about Bush's recklessness and his brazen political style.

But the most critical reason for the Democrats' change of heart is material. Among the executive class and the not-so-idle rich--that one-tenth of 1 percent of the population that makes 83 percent of the political contributions in America--Bush is God, or at least Santa Claus. In the Clinton era, the Democrats became adept at drinking from the same corporate fountains as Republicans. But as Alan Murray wrote in the Wall Street Journal on January 27, "those days are over. If any Fortune 500 CEOs are backing John Kerry, they are keeping quiet about it."

Thus the Democrats, for the first time in modern memory, find themselves forced to sing to the people in the cheap seats for their supper. It's noteworthy that DNC head Terry McAuliffe, Bill Clinton's principal fundraiser and one of the architects of the go-along, get-along DNC, recently took up an attack on Bush that the media had already branded scandalous and absurd when Michael Moore voiced it at a Wesley Clark rally: the lingering matter of Bush's non-service in the Vietnam-era National Guard. McAuliffe was hardly delicate about it. He stopped short of terming Bush a deserter, but called him "a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard."

Interesting times. The White House is clearly off-kilter from all the sudden volleys. Its first line of attack on Kerry, according to the New York Times, will be the Dukakis card: He's "just another Massachusetts liberal." I can't believe they expect to ride this very far. If they do, they will likely learn that the old labels liberal and conservative don't have the same hot-button appeal anymore. The public has begun to see that left versus right is not the name of the game. "Left" and "right," after all, have not had a consequential public disagreement in many years. The split that is inflaming the public mood is the one between insiders and outsiders.

This is the taproot of popular animus toward Bush, but it also happens to be Kerry's great weakness. The real payoff in Republican attacks on Kerry will come from taking shots not at his voting record but at who he is: a mainstay D.C. insider who can be shown, without much trouble, to have twisted with the political breezes all through his career. They will point out that although Kerry may have awakened one recent morn on the wrong side of "special interests," he is still the leading recipient of lobbyist contributions in the US Senate over the past 15 years.

They will highlight his 1995 support of a bill that enabled Enron-style accounting abuses by curbing investor lawsuits. "The law, which consumer groups opposed vociferously precisely because they feared it would lead to white collar crime," wrote Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic, "was part of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. Yet Kerry voted for it anyway, not once but twice--the second time overriding a veto by President Clinton."

They will pound at the frequent and cheerful hypocrisy of Kerry's collected public utterances, the most famous being his Yes vote on the Iraq war he now condemns. But there's no shortage of examples. JK on the Patriot Act now: "We are a nation of laws and liberties, not of a knock in the night. So it is time to end the era of John Ashcroft. That starts with replacing the Patriot Act with a new law that protects our people and our liberties at the same time." JK on the Patriot Act then: "It reflects an enormous amount of hard work by the members of the Senate Banking Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. I congratulate them and thank them for that work... [I am] pleased at the compromise we have reached on the anti-terrorism legislation."

And they will trawl up story after story about the kind of guy Kerry is. Howie Carr, one of those Boston columnists who's made a cottage industry of mocking his state's junior senator, recently published a brief compendium of some popular yarns. It's worth quoting at some length to catch the flavor:

"The tales often have one other common thread. Most end with Sen. Kerry inquiring of the lesser mortal: 'Do you know who I am?'

"And now he's running for president as a populist. His first wife came from a Philadelphia Main Line family worth $300 million. His second wife is a pickle-and-ketchup heiress.

"Kerry lives in a mansion on Beacon Hill on which he has borrowed $6 million to finance his campaign. A fire hydrant that prevented him and his wife from parking their SUV in front of their tony digs was removed by the city of Boston at his behest.

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